Leigh Brackett: “The Last Days of Shandakor”
Bill Ward and I had been meaning to get back to our re-read series at some point last year, but we both got busy. And so we decided to start the new year with a read of one of my favorite Leigh Brackett stories, “The Last Days of Shandakor.” It was the third read for me, but Bill was new to the tale, and so was Fletcher Vredenburgh, who we invited aboard.
Brackett, of course, was an adventure fiction pioneer and one of the main reasons that the pulp Planet Stories is remembered today (although this particular tale originally appeared in the magazine Startling Stories). She was writing grand space opera/sword-and-planet/science fiction/fantasy back in the ’50s and ’60s and continued doing so right until the end of her life, and sometimes it seems like that footnote (that she completed a first draft of The Empire Strikes Back) has overshadowed everything else she did. It shouldn’t, though. She was writing about complex characters who could easily have rubbed shoulders with Han Solo or Mal Reynolds decades before those two were ever invented. All of her tales are infused with a real hardboiled grit and… well, heck, maybe I should stop introducing and just get onto the discussion.
Howard: As always, I’m caught by that first paragraph. Someday I hope to write openings so finely, but I may hope in vain. Consider it again: “He came alone into the wineshop, wrapped in a dark red cloak with the cowl drawn over his head. He stood for a moment in the doorway and one of the slim dark predatory women who live in those places went to him, with a silvery chiming from the little bells that were almost all she wore.” It so perfectly paints the images with only a few words, complete with exotic atmosphere and the suggestion of mystery. Who is that stranger and why is he looking around? And that woman — a lesser writer would have mentioned her curves or exposed skin. Brackett evokes her dangerous, beguiling sensuality altogether more skillfully.
Fletcher: Brackett is someone who has been recommended to me in the strongest terms for years now. Except for her post-apocalypse novel, The Long Tomorrow, I have read nothing else by her until now. Even before I finished “The Last Days of Shandakor,” I knew I was reading something very good.
You’ve said almost exactly what I’d planned to say about those first few paragraphs. I even underlined the “slim dark predatory” bit myself. With prose like that, Brackett engulfs the reader with a sense of danger and mystery right away. As the stranger, whom people “simply refused to see,” weaves his way through the crowd, I was as captivated as the yet unnamed narrator.
Bill: Interesting how a room full of people not looking at someone has the opposite effect on the audience — we look! I think the opening of “Shandakor” is a terrific example of the power of a short story to accelerate from a dead stop to full speed ahead in just a few lines, and Brackett sure seems to be a natural at it. By the time our narrator is talking to the mysterious stranger, I realized I was already hooked.
Some of these stand out elements remind me of Robert E. Howard’s strengths, though Brackett adds a spareness of phrase more on the order of the hardboiled school. But her evocation of the exotica of Mars is straight from the REH playbook with words like “Barrakesh” and “Shunni” being close enough to our real world lexicon of places and people to suggest their meaning to the audience without ever actually needing to go into detail. Combine that with precise and active word choices, and a compelling central premise and you’ve got an opener that grabs you completely — even in the absence of a compelling or interesting protagonist. I suspect a lot of critical readers would fault this story — and much of pulp fiction — for its narrator/protagonist John Ross, but I think you could also argue that Brackett keeping the narrator almost as mysterious to us as the other elements of the piece really underscores several of the key elements of the story. What do you guys think about Ross?
Howard: Ross serves as an everyman. We can relate to him and even, come the end, despise him a little, just as he despises himself, but he mostly serves as our vehicle to observe Shandakor’s mystery and people. He’s reasonably clever, fairly competent, learned, and fears and loves in all the right places for all the proper reasons. He offers no surprises, but then, as I wrote, the story’s not really about him.
I also have to point out that I think you’re definitely on to something with her hardboiled style. REH could do that himself, of course, but it’s more marked with Brackett, who spent long years working with mysteries. I’m not sure that there’s anyone of her era that quite brought that same style to space opera/sword-and-planet/science fiction (whatever it was, quite, that she was writing that was combination of all of those with fantasy thrown in besides).
Fletcher: The only real trait of Ross’ we learn about is his ambition for a university chair. Without any real nuance to him, he comes across as driven and somewhat selfish. Both those traits point toward some of the story’s themes as well as its sorrowful ending. Essentially, though, he’s a blank, left to be filled in by the reader and serve as our eyes to take in the wonders of Shandakor and the melancholy of its last days.
Which brings me to the real heart of the story. As terrific as Brackett’s pulp-style setup and narrative are, it’s the elegiac nature of the story that effected me most, as I imagine she intended. Once he enters the city, the story becomes a death watch. We are given visions of Shandakor’s glorious past, but it’s all illusion provided by wonderful pulp-style superscience. Then, we are forced to watch its final moments, but only after suffering through a prolonged and steady march towards oblivion as the city’s supplies dwindle to nothing.
Like the best of REH or Moore, Brackett’s writing more than “mere” pulp, but relying on its tropes and bending them to her will. It’s fascinating to study and try to understand how she did it.
Bill: And wouldn’t you just love to give this story to someone that thinks pulp is nothing but plotlines and punch-ups? There is hardly an action scene in the entire tale, and what is there is over and done with in a heartbeat. Instead we get an almost parable-like tale about a dying civilization living out its final days in an illusion of the past — an illusion our protagonist destroys out of ignorance and greed. Here is where keeping the character as vague as he is really paid off — he is just relatable enough that the audience ends up somewhat complicit in his crime, because we ourselves would like to escape the city and save the life of Ross’s young Shandakorian guide. It’s only after he destroys the crystals that give life to the “memories of the stones” that we fully comprehend that Ross’s ambition and vanity makes him little better than the barbarians that besiege the city though, unlike them, he does comes to understand just what has been lost.
Howard: Brackett has an amazing talent for evoking lost grandeur and fading glory. I don’t know that any fantastic Mars has ever been quite as lonely and stunning as hers, although perhaps in the hands of her close friend Ray Bradbury there’s a similar aesthetic.
Do either of you have favorite moments? I think the most powerful for me may be when Duani refused him — although that heart rending conclusion is a close second. Did you have any favorite parts? And what did you think of Duani?
Fletcher: The very end, when Ross, years after the fall of Shandakor, is still filled with despair over what he did and all his success is but a mouthful of ashes, was my “favorite” part of the story. I use quotes because it’s one hard, bitter-tasting ending that I won’t soon forget. It’s brilliant and haunting.
I love Duani and what Brackett does with what could have been a thin, stock love-interest character. On the one hand, she really is the fairy tale princess Ross sees her as, but a distinctly alien, inhuman woman on the other. As much as she seems to love Ross, she treats him with the kind condescension of her people toward humans to the very end. Her embrace of Shandakor and its peoples’ fate seems downright alien as well.
I’m glad you brought up Bradbury. I was reminded of him as soon as I understood what was going on here. As much as I like Bradbury, though, I think I’m more drawn to Brackett’s less deliberately literary style.
Bill: Bradbury does come to mind, which only makes sense when you consider that his Martian stories are almost all concerned with loss, though I suspect the comparison wouldn’t really suggest itself when reading Brackett’s older Mars stories since Bradbury never wrote adventure fiction.
Howard: Let me jump in here with an odd fact — Bradbury did write adventure fiction, and in collaboration with Leigh Brackett herself. Brackett wrote about half of the story “Lorelei of the Red Mist” and then got asked to go to Hollywood to help write the screenplay of The Big Sleep (with William Faulkner, no less) so she turned the text over to Bradbury, who wrote the last ten thousand words with nary an outline or direction. And it’s a damned good adventure tale.
That sense of the lost and forgotten and the end of things, with its atmosphere of hardboiled grit crossed with fantastic exoticism, is present in nearly every one of Brackett’s Mars and Venus stories, and some others besides (like “The Veil of Astellar” which goes down even smoother when you read it if you imagine the voice of Humphrey Bogart as narrator.)
Sorry — back to you, Bill!
Bill: I think my favorite part, too, is the end. Specifically Ross’s selection of just one piece of the treasure of Shandakor — a small figure of an alien girl. It’s the proof that Ross has grown, that he isn’t an anti-hero. The barbarians treated him with awe when they found him, and in a slightly different story Ross could have ruled the city, kept the crystals and their record of the past, truly achieved some godlike dream of his. But this Ross destroyed the crystals — literally erased the thing he wanted more than anything — in an attempt to save Duani, and then begged to be allowed to die with her. I don’t know if you could say he loved her, certainly they were incapable of loving each other or, perhaps, whatever they felt for one another would never be enough to change the reality of their situation. But that is what redeems Ross in the end — though it’s also what kills Shandakor.
Duani, I think, is the most important character in the story. Of course we absolutely need her for the climax to happen — she’s the reason Ross is in charge of the memory crystals, and also his motivation for destroying the crystals rather than just waiting for the city to die. I’d say, though, she’s also a stand in for her entire people. When we are introduced to her, she is childlike and innocent. Ross doesn’t even think of her as anything but a child until he’s spent time with her. She could have been a nubile alien temptress that decided to keep Ross as a plaything, or even a mature woman that protected him in a more maternal way, but instead she is a juvenile who has grown of age at a time when her people are already near-death, and who has no peers to pair up with, not so much as a friend. She might even be the last child of Shandakor.
Ross thinks of Duani as a child until he’s spent time with her. I wonder how old she truly is? She looks very young, but I had the sense that she was older than her appearance. Certainly she has a maturity of presence and manner. And I’m pretty sure that Ross is making love with her between the scene breaks, especially the one after he picks her up and carries her away. By then she has just begun to look upon Ross as a woman in love might… until he arranges to destroy the illusion of their city.
Bill: The leader of the city tells Ross that the Shandakorians were able to create the great things of the past because they embraced reason. He goes on to respond to Ross’s assertion that Earthmen, too, have reason by saying that humans assume reason operates automatically, and so they mistakenly use it to justify all the emotional and superstitious decisions they make. Ross is an anthropologist who never makes a discovery in the story without considering how it will further his career and yet who, when he has the greatest discovery ever made on Mars in his hands, destroys it. He was fascinated by the alien stranger and he becomes infatuated with the alien girl, but both make it clear that their world is not for him. He ends up killing both (though Duani’s murder is a spiritual one) because he will not turn back where he is not wanted, where he doesn’t and cannot belong.
He isn’t, however, an unsympathetic character, because we share his faults. Even though Ross is essentially given everything he was ostensibly looking for (a complete and vivid record of a lost people), it isn’t enough. Certainly the context of his imprisonment mitigates his actions to a large extent — he is, after all, kept in chains by aliens while a barbarian horde waits just outside to sack the city he is in — and I think that is a smart play by Brackett to back him into a corner and, thus, keep the audience on his side, otherwise we wouldn’t be sharing in the sense of loss at the end of the piece, but condemning the protagonist. And I think that’s what’s really effective about this story — plenty of other stories evoke the exoticism of lost civilizations or the doom of dying races, but here we have one where the protagonist is complicit in the loss without him being some sort of amoral anti-hero like Cugel the Clever, but a capable scientist, a basically decent fellow, but one who confuses his own desires for reason.
Fletcher: I don’t really have much to say after that, Bill. I think you’ve dug deep into all the important parts of the story. I agree that Brackett was very sharp to keep us on Ross’ side and the ways in which she did it. Ross brings on the end of Shandakor and its people from the best of intentions. I remained sympathetic to him, even as his actions infuriated me (it’s obvious what Duani’s reaction will be). He only accelerated the eventual end and nothing he could have done would have averted it.
Ross’ actions lead me to one last thing. In a broad sense, it reminded me of Clifford Simak’s City, also written in the shadow of atomic war after WWII, when he had lost faith in humanity. Like Simak, Brackett seems to have a dark and resigned view of us. Ross is told human reason teaches “no difference between fact and falsehood” and we fight “the bloodiest wars for the merest whim.” Ross’ furious reaction to these charges as well as his final, misguided act, only seem to prove the charges. Ross is definitely a different sort of protagonist than the take-charge Campbellian hero.
I’m so glad you suggested this, Howard. This conversation has been great fun and I’m glad to have been part of it. That I’ve reached 50 without having read any of Brackett’s short stories seems unbelievable. On the other hand, I do have a ton of new-to-me stories to look forward to (as well as the Skaith trilogy). Even with a TBR stack that seems to have reached infinite proportions, I’m about to start a Brackett binge.
Bill: Fun indeed. And you’re not alone in not having read Brackett, I’ve barely scratched the surface. But between the Baen ebooks and what I have of her from the Paizo Planet Stories line, it looks like I’ve got plenty to explore!
Howard: She was a great writer. Alas, it’s a finite resource, and you’ll quickly reach its end. I think you’ll find that the Skaith novels are grand in their way but that they have a feel of “after glow” to them in that while they’re good pulp adventures they’re not quite as compelling overall as the very best of her short stories. They feature Eric John Stark, of course, her one serial character, who’s also found in three short stories, one of which, “Enchantress of Venus,” is among my favorite adventure tales of all time.